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Excerpt from Never Surrender
Once alone, Winston Churchill sobbed into his pillow until there were no more tears left to shed. In later years he would cry many times, but never in fear.
Some days later, Churchill slipped away from the swimming pond where Kynnersley and the other boys were cavorting. He ran quickly back to the school buildings, being careful not to leave any trace of wet footprints on the polished floor. He tried the door to the headmaster's study, but it was locked, so he slipped out to the garden and rattled the French windows. They were also locked, but loose. A twig thrust between the doors enabled him to slip the catch.
It was the work of only moments to snatch the beloved straw boater from its place upon the door, and it became the pleasure of an endless afternoon, alone in the Wilderness, to kick it to a thousand pieces.
In Private Donald Chichester's view, the war in France had been little short of sublime. Month after endless month of-well, nothing. No shelling, no air attacks, scarcely a shot fired in anger since they'd arrived the previous September. La drôle de guerre, as the locals called it. No war at all.
That suited Donald Chichester. He was not yet twenty, with dark hair and deep-set, earnest eyes that seemed to be in constant search of something he had lost. He was tall, well sculpted, but on the lean side, like a plant that had been forced to grow too quickly. There was an air of vulnerability about him that set him apart from the other men who had gone to war brimming with extravagant if superficial claims of confidence. Yet he was always bound to be set apart from the others, for he wasn't any proper sort of soldier.
Don Chichester was a nursing orderly serving with the 6th Field Ambulance Unit. Woman's work, as the fighting men
suggested, a soldier who had taken up bucket and mop rather than arms, who made other men's beds and who cleaned up after the sick. There were many ways to fight this war, but being a nursing orderly wasn't any of them.
He had arrived in France eight months earlier after a crossing from Southampton to Cherbourg that had been a misery. He'd reacted badly to the typhus and typhoid vaccinations, which had made his arm swell like a bloated pig and given him a raging temperature, but there had been no point in complaining. Sympathy was as short in supply as everything else. The 6th had arrived in France with old equipment and slack-geared vehicles, only to discover that their food supplies, spares and half their officers had been sent to an entirely different destination. The confusion of disembarkation had grown worse when the only new ambulance the unit possessed was hoisted on a rope cradle from the deck of the transport ship and swivelled over the side of the dock. As Don watched helplessly, the cradle had begun to unravel like a Christmas pullover, sending the ambulance thumping to earth. It bounced almost a foot in the air, then promptly collapsed into every one of its component parts.
The fate of the ambulance had reminded Don of the last time he had seen his father. Their last row. Not too many words, they'd never gone in for words much, only periods of cold silence that seemed to say it all. His father had been standing in front of the old Victorian fireplace, beside the photograph of Don's mother, the mother he had never known. But how he had grown into her looks, and more so with every passing year until there was no mistaking the resemblance. The only attributes he seemed to have inherited from his father were a stubborn chin and an ability to harbor silent fury.
They lived in his father's vicarage-a house of peace and goodwill, according to the tapestry on the wall, but not on that day. Don had tried to explain himself yet again, but the father wouldn't listen. He never had. He was a bloody vicar, for pity's sake, he preached eternity to the entire world, yet never seemed to have any time left for his only son. Perhaps it would have been different if there had been a mother to rise between them, but instead they were like strands of badly knotted rope that twisted ever tighter. The Reverend Chichester had stood in front of the fireplace shaking with anger-the only emotion Don could ever remember him displaying-and called him Absalom.
The son who betrayed his father.
Then he had used that one final word. Coward.
Any further exchange seemed superfluous.
So Donald Chichester had gone off to be trained for his war, watching at a distance as the others wrote letters to their loved ones or bargained feverishly for two-day passes home. When the training was over and their war was about to begin, they had hung despairingly out of the windows of their embarkation train until distance and smoke had finally smothered all sight of the families they were leaving behind. Through it all, Don sat back, gently mocking the overflowing affection, and twisting deep inside.
The 6th had left England in emotion and arrived at Cherbourg in chaos. They had then driven to their billet three hundred miles away in Flines-les-Râches on the Belgian border. It was raining. The British Expeditionary Force had arrived.
It continued to rain. In fact, the weather proved to be abominable, the autumn one of the wettest on record followed by a winter where the snow lay thick and everything froze solid, including the radiator in every ambulance. But so long as German radiators froze too, Don was happy. Even when they attempted to dig sanitation pits and discovered that the water table lay beneath their feet, turning their main dressing station into a quagmire, Don was content. The war was worthless, and every step he took in the fetid mud served only to confirm it.
The conditions caused disease, of course. All drinking water had to be treated with sterilizing powder, a process which usually left the water tasting so disgusting that many Tommies decided to drink the foul French water instead, with predictable results. There were many other ailments. Training accidents. Traffic accidents. Afflictions of the feet. Bronchial troubles brought on by the fact that most of the soldiers had only one uniform, which had to be dried out while being worn. And venereal disease, as the British soldiers grew tired of their phony war and succumbed in ever-growing numbers to boredom, drink and the local doxies. The follies of Flanders. Just like their fathers before them.
As the dismal months of phony war stumbled on, there was an ever-increasing number of men who complained about the uselessness of it all, how it was a mindless war and not worth fighting. Wrong place, wrong time, and an awful bloody idea. Just what Don had argued.
That was, until the early hours of May 10. Things changed. Dawn broke through a cloudless sky, and breakfast at the field dressing station where Don was posted found the officers squinting into the rising sun. They were muttering about reports of air activity. A church bell began ringing insistently in the distance. Something was up.
A sense of anticipation crept amongst those around him, a nervous excitement he was unable to share. The distance he had always known stood between him and the other soldiers once more began to assert itself.
"There's going to be a shooting war after all, Chichester," the sergeant snapped. "Not that you bloody care."